Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Leonardo da Vinci
by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, $35)
We still don’t know what to make of Leonardo da Vinci, said Danny Heitman in CSMonitor.com. Nearly 500 years after his death, the Italian polymath remains “paradoxically, one of the most well-documented yet elusive men of the Renaissance.” A tireless observer of the natural world, he left behind some 7,200 pages of sketches and jottings about imagined inventions, but little concrete biographical information. He’s also “perhaps the strangest subject to date” of Walter Isaacson, who has devoted the past decade and a half to writing biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein in an attempt to deconstruct the nature of genius. Through a humming 500-page narrative illustrated with images from his subject’s cryptic journal, Isaacson “helps us see Leonardo’s artistic vision with fresh eyes.” But he should have resisted his impulse to turn his subject’s erratic, enigmatic brilliance into simplistic life lessons at the book’s end: Leonardo was “inimitable.”
Isaacson shows us how Leonardo’s art and his scientific research were deeply connected, said Daniel Levitin in The Wall Street Journal. Leonardo began painting St. Jerome in the Wilderness in about 1480, but refined the figure’s muscular structure three decades later, after corpse dissections had given him a finer appreciation of physiology. Indeed, there’s much evidence that Leonardo obsessively tweaked past works. Isaacson stumbles, however, when he indulges in conjectures about the workings of Leonardo’s mind and makes “bald assertions” about his work that are unsupported by evidence. He states, for example, that Mona Lisa is “the greatest psychological portrait in history,” and that Leonardo’s genius derived from hard work, whereas Newton and Einstein had the advantage of divine gifts. This book often reads as if it were written on deadline for a mass audience, rather than slowly constructed as a Leonardo-like labor of love.
“The most up-to-date, if occasionally dismaying, aspect of the book is its framing as a self-help guide,” said Claudia Roth Pierpont in The New Yorker. Isaacson suggests that Leonardos still lurk among us— he even warns that we may be medicating future incarnations out of existence—and provides tips for how we might channel the legend’s creativity. But in his own time, Leonardo was more misfit than role model: A distraction- prone illegitimate child, he was arrested at 23 for engaging in “wickedness” with another young man, and might never have had the freedom to pursue his artistic and scientific passions if he’d had more respectable origins. Fortunately, Isaacson’s “powerful story of an exhilarating mind and life” is rewarding to read “even if it doesn’t set you on the path to enlightenment.”